As the search goes on for an armed man still hiding from police after taking weapons from a military base and making threats against virologist Marc Van Ranst, questions are being asked about the man’s background, his expressed opinions and how he has been allowed to continue in the military with access to weapons.
At this moment, a full-scale manhunt is under way in Limburg province for the man, identified as Corporal Jürgen Conings (46), who disappeared yesterday afternoon, leaving behind a note stating he would not be taken alive.
Prior to disappearing, he had obtained weapons, including a machine gun, a pistol and possibly a rocket launcher, from one of the barracks at which he was employed, at Peutie or at Leopoldsburg.
The man had previously made threats against virologist Marc Van Ranst, who was quickly moved with his family to a safe location. Van Ranst reacted on Twitter: “Let me make one thing perfectly clear. These kinds of threats have not the slightest effect on me.”
Later, Conings' car was found parked on the edge of a forest in Dilsen-Stokkem, and certain weapons recovered. The spokesperson for the federal prosecutor, who has taken over the case because of the risk of terrorist offences being carried out, said only the most dangerous weapons had been found in the car, without further details.
Meanwhile, it has now become clear that Conings has a troubled past, and has even been signalled as a potential terrorist threat by OCAM, the organisation charged with assessment of terrorist threats.
In March this year, the RTBF reported that the military intelligence service SGRS was keeping a group of around 30 military personnel under close surveillance because of their extreme right-wing leanings. The threat then was described by a spokesperson for defence minister Ludivine Dedonder (PS) as ‘minimal’.
“We are currently following around 30 soldiers very closely, for their sympathies or their obvious links with radical right-wing groups. It’s important to follow and we’re doing it well. We dig and we find. Screening is working well. However, we wish to stress that the threat remains minimal within the military,” the spokesperson said.
However, De Morgen has discovered that Conings had actually been listed as a PGE: a potentially violent extremist, described as “a person with extremist views who has an intention to use violence, but has not yet taken concrete steps to do so.”
Featuring on a list of suspected extremists, listed as potentially violent, should by rights mean the person in question is kept away from weapons, even in the army. The authorities will carry out an investigation into how Conings was able to lay hands on heavy weaponry, whether he ultimately uses it or not.
“Being on this list is not necessarily a drama,” a spokesperson for the military union ACMP told De Morgen.
“Belonging to a certain organisation or having a certain conviction is not punishable a priori. You can adhere to an extreme right-wing ideology, but it is only when you commit criminal offences or compromise the name and reputation of the army by making certain statements that you expose yourself to prosecution under military law or criminal law,” spokesperson Yves Huwart told the paper.